Category Archives: Criticism

Writing is not a Performance Art

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Sometimes, we write what we most need to hear.  And this is one of those moments.  So pull up a chair and a cup of coffee, because I have something I want to tell you that I need to hear:

A friend was publishing a new story in a new fandom. The fact that she was not getting the readership and the number of comments she wanted was causing her great distress. Her predicament got me thinking.

So often as artists, we base our self-esteem, our value of our own work, on what other people think. The family who surround me, for example, do not view me as a ‘proper’ writer because my work does not come neatly packaged between two cardboard rectangles with the name of a reputable publisher stamped on the back. I do not make money from my work. Therefore I do not ‘work’, and I am not a ‘proper’ writer. I am not a stranger to the humiliation of being told at a family dinner to move over because: ‘There’s a writer at the table’, when another relative, a talented journalist (whose work I greatly admire and whose success I happily delight in, I should point out) arrives to sit down.

At our recent writing retreat, my fellow writers and I had a long and animated discussion about the ever-present problem of how other people react when we tell them what we do. One friend told the horrible anecdote of an acquaintance’s response to the news that she was a writer – ‘Never mind, I’m sure you can get a job at Tesco!’

(I know, right?)

I suspect that writers are second only to actors in the low opinion the public has of our earning power. Either you’re Benedict Cumberbatch or you’re unemployed. This completely ignores the thousands of jobbing actors who make a reasonable, if somewhat precarious, living doing low profile but necessary jobs in voice-overs, radio, small TV parts and rep. Indeed, Benedict Cumberbatch has spent a substantial proportion of his career doing exactly that. (If you watch and listen carefully, you’ll see and hear him pop up all over the place!)

The point I am trying to make is that creative people don’t do it for the money. And if you think that, you have missed the whole point.

Modern society, where success in any endeavour is measured in filthy lucre and TV appearances, clearly has failed to read the memo.

Another friend, who has been a visual artist as well as a writer all her working life, which I suspect helps, responds to the dreaded question about earnings thus: “I don’t do it for the money. I do it because it keeps me sane.”

And that is the point.

Writing is not a performance art.

At least, fiction is not. (Journalism obviously is, and I’m still on the fence about poetry!)

Writing is not about the number of comments or reviews you get.  Its not about the number of ‘shares’ on Tumblr.  Its not about the number of hits you get in a day.  Its not about being published by Harper and Collins, or getting an agent from a top agency, or being on an arts programme on BBC4, or giving author readings, or getting your picture in the paper,  or winning the Booker Prize, or making the bestseller lists on Amazon or the Sunday Times, or getting a three book deal, or selling your script to Warners and getting a theme park made out of your book, or making £100k a year.

Writing is not about how many people like you.  Its not about applause.

Writing is about making stories.

We do it because we have to. Because we have a compulsion to tell our stories.

I am delighted to tell you that my fanfiction friend soldiered on against the tide with writing and publishing her new fanwork. Over time she accumulated a substantial following, but more importantly has rejoiced in an explosion of creativity, producing more works and excelling in other art forms as a result.  And I’m thrilled for her.  She is going through a renaissance of creativity because she refused to give up.

“How people receive your gifts is none of your business. You were given a unique set of gifts, life experiences, and passions. Your only job is to share them.”

Rebecca Campbell, ‘Light is the New Black’

When it comes down to it, it does not matter whether family notice that I get over 100 readers a day, a tally that most conventionally published writers could only dream of. (I’m the only person who is hung up about that, after all!)  It does not matter whether they read my work. (Actually, I’m quite glad they don’t!) It does not matter whether they like it. It does not matter whether they think I am an idiot not to charge for it. It does not matter how much I earn or don’t earn, or what other people think of that sum. It really doesn’t matter what people I meet at dinner parties think when I tell them what I do.

And really, it doesn’t matter what my audience thinks either.

The point is to make the art.

And to keep making the art.

To keep on speaking my truth.

Because the people who need to hear that truth will find me. And the rest don’t matter.

Or, as Elizabeth Gilbert puts it so beautifully:

“If people don’t like what you’re creating, just smile at them sweetly and tell them to GO MAKE THEIR OWN FUCKING ART!”

Happy creating,

EF

The Muse with the Limp

Walking with my Muse

Walking with my Muse

My Muse is limping.

I’ve only just noticed. I think she has probably been hobbled her whole life. Or at least since my teens. Perhaps even since my childhood.

Since the moment when what other people thought became more important than what I thought.

I didn’t know until I looked at her. I didn’t know until I began to think seriously about her, about where we are going together, about what we want. I think most of all she wants to be set free of expectations.

Other people’s expectations.

Or rather, the way I constrain her by caring what other people think.

All the ‘how tos’ and ‘SHOULDs’ and ‘OUGHTs’. All the maxims and formulas. The schemata and diagrams and plot arcs and exhortations about what ‘The Market’ is looking for next.

Most of all, the Rules. You know the ones. About what is valuable. What is Serious. What is High Art. What is Literary.

I’m ashamed of the art I make. I’m ashamed of the fact that I write fanfiction. I’m ashamed that I write about sex. And about romance. Because romance is tacky and pink and very definitely NOT Literature.

(Never mind ‘Pride and Prejudice’ being a romance. Never mind ‘Jane Eyre’ being a romance. Never mind pretty much every great novel there has ever been having a love story at the centre of it, because this is what we do as human beings – we fall in love. Barbara Cartland made it cheap. Barbara Cartland has a lot to answer for. Or perhaps it wasn’t her fault. Just the fault of the patriarchal publishing industry which packages ‘women’s fiction in pink, tacky covers and gives it all the seriousness of maribou feathers, in order to keep us girls in our place. But I digress….)

One day I was walking along, enjoying the chilly afternoon sun, head in the clouds, and a revolutionary thought came to me:

I can do what I want.

I don’t have to listen to anybody else.

I don’t have to care what anybody else thinks.

I can do what I want.

I cannot tell you how extraordinary that thought was, coming to me not long after I had offered a story to a friend for feedback, only to have it be ripped apart (in a loving way, of course) and then to be told how to rewrite it – as she would have done. I should have known better, of course. The story wasn’t cooked yet. It was still in that wobbly, puddingy state when it hasn’t yet set. Not ready to be seen by anyone else, in other words.   And because I respect her opinion, because she is a SERIOUS writer, a Literary writer, I listened.

And my Muse has needed a wheelchair ever since.

(I note the use of the word SHOULD in that sentence earlier by the way. You see, I’m getting quite good at spotting them these days!)

But what would happen if I decided to disregard what THEY think. All those people out there whose opinion I value above my own?

What if I listened to my gut?

Medical scientists have discovered recently that there are more neurons, using more serotonin, in the human gut, than in the brain. That’s where the majority of your serotonin goes, in fact. That’s why we have what we call ‘gut feelings’.

Maybe I should listen to my gut. And give my poor, battered Muse a bit of physiotherapy. Perhaps I can set her free from all the OUGHTS and find out what she wants to do. Maybe we could have a bit of fun together, the first unrestrained fun we’ve had since I was writing Blakes 7 fanfics when I was about 8!

I’m not expecting to write the Great Novel that way. But perhaps I could just write MY novel.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to throw out all of my ‘How to Write’ books, so I can discover how I write.

Happy creating,

EF

Learning the Lessons

Footprints Ardnave 1I have to admit to being a bit nervous about posting again.  Which is silly, really.  But last week’s battering has really knocked my confidence, and the events of the intervening days have been a rough ride.

But just when you think you can’t cope anymore, the Universe hands you a rose.  This time in the shape of Pola’s loving and kind comment on my last post:

“The reason I’m writing is to let you know that I really appreciate your talent in writing. I appreciate your devotion to your craft and your desire to help others in developing their own style and creativity. So whatever you decide, I just wanted you to know that I think you’re an important voice in the world of writing and that I hope you never give up in your endeavor to have your voice heard. This world would be less without it.”

Thank you so much, dear, dear Pola.  I cannot tell you how much this meant to me.

With your words ringing in my ears, I got back on the horse last night, and wrote a new story, 2207 words of trying something new with ‘Lewis’.  It was somehow important to start again with ‘Lewis’ given that it was a ‘Lewis’ story that caused all the trouble in the first place.  I don’t know where the story came from, it just popped into my head.  I don’t know if I’m ready to publish anything yet either, but it feels so good to be back in the saddle.

I was made to write.  I don’t know how not to.

Somehow, I’m going to have to learn to deal with criticism better, from the sort that is justified to the sort that is completely out of order.  Its very hard to do that when you are already in a tough place.

I realised that I posted the story because I wanted a confidence boost.  I wanted some good reviews to cheer me up.  And when I didn’t get them, got the reverse in fact, it knocked me over completely.

Important Lesson #1:  Do not post your fanfics just to get applause.

I posted ‘Not So Innocent’ on a whim.  I don’t have a beta, so it hadn’t had a second reader look at it.  There was no one to tell me that it had dodgey elements in it.  I had doubts about it, I have to admit, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what they were.  If I’d had backup, maybe I would have seen its faults.

Important Lesson #2: Get a beta reader.

Preferably someone who knows the fandoms I write in, has excellent capacity for spotting my hidden prejudices, and my inability to cope with apostrophes.  I read last night’s creation to Husband (a stickler for apostrophes), which was a very useful exercise (reading your work aloud is always enlightening), but he doesn’t have the time to be a proper beta, and he’s got enough stress on his plate as it is.

I’ve always fought shy of having a beta because I don’t like the idea of the delay it involves.  I’m probably too protective of my work anyway, so having an editor would be good practise in stepping back, and would probably help me handle criticism better.  Plus I’ve had bad experiences with supposedly ‘helpful’ readers in the past.  And I know what a lousy beta I am in terms of getting around to reading other people’s work I’ve offered to read.

If anyone is interested in being a beta for me, and can offer a fast turn-around time, dedication to grammar and a fine eye for possible offending material, please let me know.

Its hard not to feel over-sensitive at this point.  I confess I am still very wobbly.  Things in RL are on shaky ground.  I’m trying to support Husband and his family members as best I can, while dealing with my own illness, and the onset of the most difficult time of the year for me in terms of mental health.  Taking it slow and looking after myself, so that I can look after him, is the best I can do.

Important Lesson #3:  Look after yourself.

And of course:

Important Lesson #4:  DON’T GIVE UP.

So thank you for your continued support.  One way or another, we’ll all get there.

Happy Creating,

EF

Exhausted and Overwrought – and Deleting ‘Not So Innocent’

Following mature and thoughtful discussion in the comments section of my last post, I’ve decided to take ‘Not So Innocent’ off AO3.  The whole thing has upset me too much, especially since we are now facing a new personal crisis in RL.  Its just not worth it.

Right now, I don’t want to publish a fanfic ever again.  I just can’t face it.  I’ll get over that, I suppose.  I always do.  I certainly don’t want to spend today writing, as I had planned.

I want to say something erudite about the way women are treated by society, but I just don’t think I can.  I’ll just say this:

Jimmy Saville’s victims number in the hundreds.  More come out every day.

Accusations are now filtering out about not just sexual and physical abuse, but children being killed as part of sex parties by a ring centred in Westminster in the 70s and 80s.

Bill Cosby’s career is in freefall after accusations of rape.

Rotherham.

Birmingham.

Rochdale

Oxford

Telford

Syria and Iraq

Boko Haram

Women being executed for bringing ‘shame on their families’ by being the victim of rape.

Just about every photoshopped photograph in every glossy magazine published anywhere in the world.

Every diet company that preys on women’s poor self image.

Gala Darling’s recent revelations

Every girl who’s afraid to walk down her own street at night, but thinks the only way to be acceptible to her peers is to go out scantily dressed on a Friday night and get so drunk she can’t even stand, let alone take care of herself and keep herself safe.

Every boy who thinks that when a girl says no, she means ‘yes’ because she’s ‘playing hard to get’.

Every person who judges me because I don’t have children, or because I let my hair grow grey, because I’m not behaving like a ‘proper’ woman.

My husband’s 86 year old aunt, who weighs no more than 6 stone, telling me her thighs are fat.

And the fact that the acceptance of abuse is so ingrained in both my mind and yours that often we don’t even notice it.  Because I certainly didn’t.

EF

 

An Essay on Prammage*, or How Not to Take Your Own Advice About Adverse Criticism

*Prammage: noun, colloquial.  The act of throwing one’s toys out of the pram;  going off in a flounce or a sulk; a passive-aggressive act of self-harm or self-sabotage in response to not getting one’s own way; see also ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’.

I was going to write you a lovely blog post about playing with language today, but events have taken an interesting turn, and I wanted to share them with you.

On Monday 17th November I posted a Lewis fanfic called ‘Not So Innocent’ that I’d had hanging around on my hard disk for a while.  It was written as a quickfic, and I found it again, and thought it was funny, so I decided to post it as a quickie and didn’t think much about it.  Being a Lewis fic, it didn’t get masses of attention, because the fandom is relatively small, but the person I posted it for as a gift liked it, and that seemed all that mattered.

This morning, Wednesday 19th November, I woke up to vicious criticism on both FF.net and AO3 for the story.  The reviewer basically accused me of condoning and inciting sexual harrassment and rape.

Hmm.

This didn’t go down too well with me, since I have been victim of both sexual harrassment and abuse.

I am also not in a good place at the moment, and my response to this unexpected attack was to delete the story on both AO3 and FF.net.  I have never written a dub-con or non-con story and I wouldn’t.  It disgusts me.  I have written quite aggressively dark stories that include child abuse and public humiliation sex, but which explore the psychological wounds that underly and result from them.  For anyone to accuse me of condoning sexually abusive behaviour was just too much.

I can’t be arsed.  I’ve got too much other shit going on in my life to bother with making myself a target for such oversensitive extreme-feminist bull.

As far as I was concerned, the reader had simply not identified the subtext which runs through the story, which is that all participants know exactly what is going on, and are party to it, an irony from which the humour is supposed to arise.

Obviously I didn’t make that subtext clear enough, I realised, as I stomped off to the bathroom to shower.  (I do most of my thinking and story planning in the shower.)  And then I really got to thinking:

Was my own experience of sexual harrassment at work being a ‘normal’ part of a woman’s career colouring my work?

FULL DISCLOSURE:  I have been on the receiving end of some serious acts of sexual harrassment in my younger days (before I lost my looks, haha!).  It was regarded with a shrug as something that went on.  Indeed, at some level, ‘Not So Innocent’ must draw on the experiences I had as a young academic at a number of conferences.

At one, I allowed myself to be seduced by an older man who was also the leader of a rival project.  He was charming and intelligent, and I was lonely and desperate for comfort.  It later transpired that he was only interested in me because he thought he could extract from me details of what our project was doing.

And this is where the question of consent comes in.  We had fully consensual sex that night, but it turned out that we were consenting to two different things.  I thought I was consenting to beginning an intimate relationship with long term prospects.  He thought I was consenting to being exploited for information.  The question of consent between two people having sex turns out to be a lot more complicated than just ‘do you want to, or not’.

My own experience of conference ‘pursuits’ is not something I have examined much before, except to realise that its pretty exploitative, but I can see that in writing ‘No So Innocent’, I’ve displayed some attitudes that I had internalised without thinking.  Instead of thinking: ‘this is what happens’, maybe I should have realised: ‘this isn’t something that should happen.’

I began to reflect on ‘Not So Innocent’ in a different way, by considering what both James and Lewis are consenting to, and what Innocent is implying.  Would she really go through with her threat?  I think not. I think she’d sit James down on the end of her bed and give him a good talking-to about how much he loves Lewis, and how much Lewis clearly loves him.  I think I knew that when I was writing it.  I think James knows it too.

And even if they did have sex because he chickened out with Lewis, I think it would be lovely, passionate, and above all, uncoerced.

There was intended to be a sexual frisson between James and Jean.  I wanted him to be torn to a certain extent, attracted by the prospect of Innocent’s considerable charms.  I happen to think she’s a very sexy woman, and I think James sees that, just as she finds him attractive.  I realised I underwrote the irony because while I was writing, I wasn’t sure how the thing was going to end – and I secretly wanted James and Innocent to end up in bed together.  That is the danger of publishing an unpolished quickfic.

As for the scene where James gets into bed with Robbie, I honestly don’t think there is a consent issue there.  Robbie is clearly consenting, and if he wasn’t, he’s quite capable, both in terms of physical strength, and authority, of ejecting James.  In my opinion, it is clear that they are also both consenting to the same thing, and they both know it:  the start of a loving relationship, and the end of their unrequited yearning for each other.

And yes, it would be different if it were a man getting into a woman’s bed uninvited, or a man threatening a woman with seduction, but that isn’t what is happening.  These are two people who are in love, finally being pushed through their inhibitions by a fond friend.  The fact that they happen to be co-workers, with the ensuing power-politics, becomes irrelevant in the face of love.

I wish I hadn’t deleted the story, because I have deleted the comments of the readers as a result.  I wish I had left it so that people can make up their own minds.  Because, if nothing else, this story might make people rethink attitudes at work that they have previously taken for granted as normal, as I have.

I also think its a work I have clearly under-written in terms of subtext, and all the participants’ complicity, but I’m not going to rewrite it, or change it in any way.  I want it to stand as a testament to the fact that I will no longer throw my toys out of the pram because someone doesn’t like my work.

I have never censored myself because of a review, and I won’t start now.

So I’ve decided to republish ‘Not So Innocent’ on AO3, so that you can make up your own mind.  I’d love to have a discussion with you on the subjects raised, either in the comments here, or on AO3.

I’ll look forward to hearing from you,

love EF

Unexpected Attack of the Killer Critics

“Well, it smacks of arrogance to me,” she said, when I explained to her what a blog was.  “To assume you have something to say that anyone would want to read.”

After that, I admit I lost track a bit of what she was saying, distracted by the fact that the word ‘ARROGANT’ seemed to be written above our heads in flashing red neon capitals.

And then was somehow branded on my forehead.

This, from a long-time friend, someone I have known for many years through both ups and downs, hers and mine.  I thought she knew how much my writing meant to me,  I thought she understood,

Of course, it all comes from fear.

Fear that the world is changing, and she doesn’t understand it.

It is fear that makes a person, however intelligent, assume that because they don’t understand something, it has no value.  The irony of this position is that it puts the fearful person in the centre of their universe, which is as good a definition of arrogance and egotism as I have seen.

Driving home, I realised my heart was hurting.  I looked up at the sun piercing shafts of silvery light through the evening rainclouds (“God speaking”, as my mother says whenever she sees such a sky) but I couldn’t see the beauty of it.  I was hurting too much.  But it won’t stop me, her criticism.  I will make lemonade.

Why?

Because I can’t not write.

Regardless of whether anyone thinks that what I have to say has merit (and I know some of you do because you kindly subscribe, favourite, like and comment, for which I am eternally grateful), I will go on writing because I am compelled to write.

Because its my job.

It’s my life’s work.

Its what I do.

I don’t get paid for it – not yet anyway, though I have hopes.  Some friends still don’t get that, either.  Their measure of success comes in pound notes.  They can’t understand my ‘failure to monetize’.  They don’t understand that to me, success means averaging 400 readers a day of my fanfiction, over 400 subscribers to this blog, or on some days, just managing to write two or three coherent sentences.

My critical friend doesn’t understand the compulsion to be creative, to have a voice.  She doesn’t get that if I don’t write every day, I turn into the Evil Twisted Passive-Aggressive Psycho-Bitch from Hell.  And she doesn’t understand that:

EVERYBODY HAS THE RIGHT TO SPEAK THEIR OWN TRUTH.

So if you take nothing else away from my work, and from my complaining about my thoughtless friend, or why money-oriented people don’t understand creativity as an end in itself, please take this:

SPEAK YOUR OWN TRUTH.

IT IS YOUR RIGHT.

This is my message to you, and whether it has merit or not, it is my life’s work to say it, over and over again.

Happy Creating,

EF

Serendipity – the Universe is listening!

After yesterday’s rant about frustration, I want to share with you something that arrived in my world this morning.  Something beautiful.  Something I really needed to hear.

Jamie Ridler is talking about being a gracious host to your own creative urges.

Whatever they may be.

And not judging them.

I can’t tell you how much I needed this permission to cease judging today.  Thank you Jamie.

EF